16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence

By By Gill Walton, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives and Dr Edward Morris, President of The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on 26 November 2021 Maternity Services RCM Midwives MSWs - Maternity Support Workers RCOG - Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists RCOG Domestic Abuse FGM - Female Genital Mutilation

16 Days of Activism is an international campaign and yearly event, coordinated by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership, which runs from 25 November until 10 December, culminating in International Human Rights Day. The 16 Days of Activism is used as a strategy to highlight and raise awareness, and galvanise actions from individuals, governments, organisations and civil societies around the world to call for the prevention and end to violence against women and girls. This year’s global theme is “Orange the world: End violence against women now!”

The Royal College of Midwives and The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have campaigned over many years to highlight many forms of gender-based violence. These include domestic abuse, sexual harassment, trafficking of women and girls for slavery and exploitation, forced marriage, virginity testing and hymenoplasty, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). We know that midwives, maternity support workers (MSWs) and doctors are caring for women who have experienced this horrific abuse and, sadly, we know that some of them have also been on the receiving end.

One in every three women across the world is subjected to domestic violence and abuse, or sexual violence from a partner or ex-partner, and 1 in 4 women has been a victim of domestic abuse in their life. In the last year in England and Wales 1.3 million women (7.9% of the overall population) aged 16 to 59 years experienced domestic violence and abuse. There is also a rise in the number of women reporting sexual harassment and rape. Our own evidence showed that midwives and maternity staff make up part of these statistics too.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the UK’s population is diverse and full of many different cultures, religions and traditions. It’s also constantly changing and evolving because of globalisation and the arrival of people from across the world. With it comes different forms of abuse that impact negatively on the health and well-being of women and girls. They are often coerced and subjected to abuses under the guise of ‘traditional practices’ or in the name of so-called honour - child marriage, virginity testing, hymenoplasty and breast ironing.

Midwives and maternity staff have a window into a pregnant woman’s life during the course of her pregnancy and the postnatal period. They have unique insights into the lives of women, within the contexts of their families and home environments. They also have a crucial public health and safeguarding role, and the potential exists for identifying victims of abuse and work across professional groups to end violence and abuse. Healthcare professionals therefore must be given sufficient time and resources to carry out this essential work. Unfortunately, our services are experiencing unprecedented staffing pressures and we think this makes identifying signs of abuse and violence even more challenging.

There needs to be a coordinated approach across organisations to ensure that victims of abuse can get early help and support. Also, early education of boys and girls in school is necessary so that they understand issues of consent and what a healthy relationship looks like.

Many victims including health professionals are ashamed to disclose abuse. It is important that all victims of abuse seek help. By doing so they are not only helping themselves but helping the women in their care who need their help and support.

As recently stated in the Economist piece, Nations that fail women fail, policy-makers who fail to consider the interests of half the population cannot hope to understand the world.  Gender-based violence breaches the human rights of women and girls and cannot be tolerated in a modern society.

Both the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy and the Women’s Health Strategy provide this Government with an essential opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of women and girls. We encourage them to take urgent action now, to stem what has become one of the UK’s most serious public health issues.

Safe Places? Workplace Support for those Experiencing Domestic Abuse (rcm.org.uk)